Once Just for Tennis, Chicago's Midtown Athletic Club Ups Its Game With New 55-Room Hotel
Josh Noel | Chicago Tribune | November 8, 2017 1:00am
Nov. 08--Slide open the bedside drawer in the 55 rooms at The Hotel at Midtown and you won't find the Bible.
You'll find a slim, 122-page paperback copy of the "Official Rules of Tennis."
"If you're looking for our bible, that's it," said Midtown's president and CEO, Steven Schwartz.
Founded nearly 50 years ago as Midtown Tennis Club, a changing neighborhood, changing city and changing consumer tastes have led the property at 2444 N. Elston Ave. to reinvent itself for a 21st-century audience. The result is the Midtown Athletic Club, which opened Labor Day weekend, and The Hotel at Midtown, debuting Friday.
Though Schwartz said the tennis club remains profitable enough to operate on its own, "people don't play tennis as their only source of activity anymore," he said.
"You satisfy your members more when you offer more," Schwartz added. "We wanted to diversify."
Diversification has come in the form of a handsome fitness center that includes rows of machines, classes galore, an indoor pool, an outdoor pool, a full-service spa, a boxing studio, a golf course simulator and a restaurant called Chromium that tilts more decadent than health-conscious.
Above all that, on the top two floors of the five-story building, is the hotel that offers views of downtown and the Kennedy Expressway from one side, and the Damen Avenue bridge and an old power plant from the other.
Costing upward of $80 million, the project is rooted in the city's plan to reconfigure the intersection of Fullerton, Damen and Elston avenues, which caused Midtown to lose its 15,000-square-foot fitness center and a tennis court.
Schwartz, who operates eight Midtown clubs, four of which are in the Chicago area, figured the opportunity presented a chance to build a gleaming, 100,000-square-foot fitness center in addition to his 16 remaining indoor tennis courts.
The idea to include a hotel only came after ground had been broken, as Schwartz stood chatting on the top floor of the parking garage. It was, he said, the proverbial light bulb moment.
"We're in the middle of some of the greatest neighborhoods in Chicago, and there are no hotels at all," said Schwartz, who worked in the hotel industry for six years before joining Midtown, a company launched by his father and grandfather in 1970.
Though there is at least one nearby hotel -- the 69-room Robey opened in Wicker Park last year, a mile south -- The Hotel at Midtown furthers a recent trend of neighborhood boutique hotels.
Executing the hotel at the moment of Schwartz's inspiration was not simple; the developer needed to pivot on a work-in-progress, shifting the foundation from concrete to steel.
"It was really hard and really expensive and really out of sequence," Schwartz said. "I don't recommend doing it this way."
But, he said, once the idea struck him, it seemed obvious.
"We're in a stage in the hotel industry and the club industry where, marrying them the way we have, you create a whole different category," he said. "It's synergistic at the right size."
The synergy is particularly strong on the hotel side. When you're sleeping, who cares where you are? But when awake, Midtown offers guests something most hotels don't: a world-class health club. Full access is part of a stay. As architect Dwayne MacEwen said, "It's 94 percent amenities and 6 percent hotel."
MacEwen's Evanston-based DMAC Architecture both designed and built the hotel, and came up with a structure that's long on sturdy, rustic materials: stone, glass, wood, granite and even tall birch trunks, used "as a threshold between public and private space," MacEwen said. In a bid to create a high-end experience, there are elaborate finishings in all directions, including faux greenery on the walls and goose feather chandeliers in the locker rooms.
Spaces are a fusion of athletic center and hotel. The exercise areas and indoor pool, naturally, feel like a fitness center, but the outdoor pool and restaurant seem more like they belong to a hotel. Rooms are simple, clean and sleek, and flooded with natural light through broad windows. One room, which was not finished when the Tribune toured the property, was designed by the Florida-based firm owned by tennis star Venus Williams, V-Starr Interiors. (She also designed the tennis lounge.)
It adds up to a natural destination for an active traveler or an obvious "staycation" for someone who wants to trade the kids and the suburbs for a day of tennis, swimming and the spa, followed by dinner in the city and then breakfast at the hotel, overlooking the outdoor pool.
The Hotel at Midtown has a boutique sensibility and is priced like it, with an average starting rate of about $250 per night.
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